New skeletal evidence could put decades-old debate over Qumran settlers to rest
Boys clubAt the site where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found

New skeletal evidence could put decades-old debate over Qumran settlers to rest

Archaeologists’ study appears to confirm theory rooted in ancient texts that the Essenes, a strictly socialist Jewish sect, settled the area some 2,200 years ago

Amanda Borschel-Dan is The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology editor.

Caves of Qumran (Shmuel Bar-Am)
Caves of Qumran (Shmuel Bar-Am)

At the site where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered 70 years ago, new analysis of 30 recently excavated graves supports the theory that 2,200 years ago, Qumran was settled by a predominantly male sect — likely the Essenes — whose rituals were described in detail by ancient authors Josephus, Philo, and Pliny.

“The People of Qumran — New Discoveries and Paleodemographic Interpretations” was presented at the annual American Schools of Oriental Research meeting last week by Israel Antiquities Authority anthropologist Yossi Nagar, and archaeologists Hanania Hizmi and Yevgeny Aharonovich and explores who dwelled in Qumran when the Dead Sea Scrolls were penned, between circa 150 BCE and the fall of the Second Temple in the Roman conquest of 70 CE.

Qumran as seen from the cliffs (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
Qumran as seen from the cliffs (Shmuel Bar-Am)

The study’s use of C14 dating of one of the bones, and further inspections of morphology and pathology of the skeletal remains, have led the team to reaffirm “the uniqueness of Qumran’s society, supporting the earliest theories, which view Qumran as a community of ideologically celibate men.”

The study confirms that the overwhelming majority of the 33 skeletons found in the graves excavated in 2016 were male, and reevaluated other remains from the cemetery which had falsely been classified as female. According to the website Science News, “reexamination of 53 previously unearthed human skeletons from Qumran’s cemetery, now housed in France, found that six of seven individuals formerly tagged as women were actually men.”

This new evidence, said the team, should put to rest the debate over the identity of the residents of the area, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found, in a series of 11 caves surrounding the settlement.

“I don’t know if these were the people who produced the Qumran region’s Dead Sea Scrolls,” Nagar told Science News. “But the high concentration of adult males of various ages buried at Qumran is similar to what has been found at cemeteries connected to Byzantine monasteries.” The Byzantine monks settled in remote regions such as the Judaen Desert beginning in the 4th-5th century CE.

The settlers of the Hellenistic-Roman site of Horbat Qumran and its surrounding large cemetery “have been the subject of endless scientific publications, questioning the association of this site with an enigmatic group of people, the Essenes,” write the authors.

A natural pool along the ancient Qumran cliffs (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
A natural pool along the ancient Qumran cliffs (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

Long before the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, European explorers were aware of the massive cemetery already in the 1800s. However, since the first extensive excavations of the site in the 1950s by Roland de Vaux, more than 60 years ago, “archaeology has not supplied us with convincing proof” of the association between the residents and the Essene sect, states the paper.

Due to conflicting findings in the some 1,100 graves discovered at the site, different theories have abounded about whose remains were buried there. Arguably the most popular theory is that the residents were a sect of predominantly celibate men, the Essences, whose Spartan rituals and socialist way of life explained the majority of simple burials, found at the site.

According to the new study, “the excavation of 30 newly discovered graves in 2016 at Qumran’s cemetery might put an end to the debates. The skeletal remains were examined using a variety of well-established age and sex estimation methodologies, and past estimations were re-inspected.”

According to the authors, “The new demographic results and interpretations are: infants and women are absent from the skeletal sample; the population is composed of adult males, and only a few children are represented; child proportion and adult age at death distribution match the common desert monasteric societies of the subsequent periods.”

In other words, it was a men’s club.

What does Josephus say?

The first century Jewish historian Josephus Flavius (born Yosef ben Matityahu) wrote extensively on the Essenes in The Jewish War and other histories. Josephus expert, Prof. Steve Mason from the University of Groningen, wrote a literal translation of The Judean War from the Greek in a volume he published in 2008, which was excerpted on the Biblical Archaeology website.

Josephus writes that the Essenes were Judaens by ancestry — but with distinctions. “There is among them a disdain for marriage, adopting the children of outsiders while they are still malleable enough for the lessons they regard them as family and instill in them their principles of character.” In this way, writes Josephus, the members of the sect “protect themselves from the wanton ways of women, having been persuaded that none of them preserves her faithfulness to one man.”

The first century Roman portrait bust said to be of Josephus, conserved in the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen, Denmark (Wikipedia/ Creative Commons)

The all-male society Josephus describes is strict in its pious discipline and socialist in nature: “Since [they are] despisers of wealth — their communal stock is astonishing — one cannot find a person among them who has more in terms of possessions… the assets of each one have been mixed in together, as if they were brothers, to create one fund for all.”

Bodies decay, writes Josephus, but there is an indelible belief among the sect that “our souls endure forever, deathless: they get entangled, having emanated from the most refined ether, as if drawn down by a certain charm into the prisons that are bodies.”

At the same time, writes Josephus, “There is also a different order of Essenes. Though agreeing with the others about regimen and customs and legal matters, it has separated in its opinion about marriage. For they hold that those who do not marry cut off the greatest part of life, the succession, and more: if all were to think the same way, the line would very quickly die out.”

Josephus continues by affirming that sexual intercourse was merely a matter of procreation, and only conducted after “testing the brides in a three-year interval, once they have been purified three times as a test of their being able to bear children.” Additionally, once the woman is pregnant, sexual relations are halted, “demonstrating that the need for marrying is not because of pleasure, but for children.”

These “married Essenes” could explain the outlier graves of women and children. Others have explained them, and those graves in which burial goods are found, in the belief that in later periods, Bedouins reused a portion of the grave sites — sometimes without removing the previous occupants.

Scholars weigh in

While there are those, including Josephus scholar Mason, who do not believe that the historian’s testimony on the Essenes is reliable, others point to the fact that he devotes a whole lot of ink — some 43 paragraphs out of 47 — to the Essenes in his description of the major forms of Judaism in his Jewish War, according to a 2009 Biblical Archaeology Review article by archaeologists Kenneth Atkinson, Hanan Eshel, and Jodi Magness.

The archaeologists quote from Josephus’s biography, in which he describes a three-year apprenticeship to an Essene called Bannus, “who dwelt in the wilderness, wearing only such clothing as trees provided, feeding on such things as grew of themselves, and using frequent ablutions of cold water, by day and night, for purity’s sake. I became his devoted disciple. With him, I lived for three years.”

University of North Carolina archaeologist Jodi Magness. (photo by George Duffield © J3D US LP)

In an email on Sunday, Magness, a professor in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said the new study supports the majority view that the residents were a male sect, likely the Essenes.

“I would say that the picture obtained from the 30 newly excavated graves is consistent with the evidence from the graves excavated by de Vaux in the 1950s, specifically, that the Qumran community consisted overwhelmingly of adult Jewish men. The absence of burials of children (although admittedly the excavated sample is small), is striking in light of the high rate of infant and child mortality in the ancient world,” she wrote after speaking at a conference on the Dead Sea Scrolls in New York.

“This new evidence appears to support the consensus (majority) view of Qumran, which I share — that Qumran was a sectarian settlement — and many scholars (including myself) identify that sect with the Essenes mentioned in ancient authors such as Josephus, Philo, and Pliny,” wrote Magness.

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